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John L Murphy
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Canonized unwittingly as St. Josaphat, a corruption of "bodhisattva," the Buddha, condemned as an idol worshiped by his duped followers, had his story transmitted after long centuries within the hagiography translated to convert the Japanese in the 1600s. So runs one of many twists in the tale translated by Peggy McCracken and introduced by Donald S. Lopez as a 2014 Penguin Classic. Gui de Cambrai around 1220-25 adapted the story into French verse; McCracken renders it efficiently into modern English. Gui takes the core elements of the Buddha legend: the prediction that the prince will be a saint or a king; the ensuing protection by his father the king to keep him from the sights of the world, until a series of chariot rides reveal mortality, sickness, age, and death to the coddled lad; and temptations by seductive women who seek to dissuade the prince from his destiny and enlightenment as he vows to depart the palace for a life of asceticism, after having first fathered an heir in his turn.
What the medieval teller adds, Lopez in his perhaps too brief introduction and McCracken in her edition (which has surprisingly brief footnotes as compared with many Penguins) show, is an elaborate disputation between Greeks (ahistorically if entertainingly including Plato's brother and a nephew of Aristotle for good measure), Chaldeans, and pagans. They integrate many fine stories in succession cobbled together from ancient lore, and this transmission as with the larger storyline contains inherent interest for how this comes down to the early eleventh century in Old French. We get clever glimpses into the culture, as when perverse sex earns condemnation in a comparison to chess. Those engaging in "a shameful game" allow themselves "to be mated from the corner." The hectoring narrator goes on: "The clerics were first to adopt it, and they taught the game to knights. The deed is base--anyone who would leave the clearing for the woods is like a base peasant." (100-101) Finally, the teller shakes free of the vice he despises, and the story later elaborates into a set-piece about the Crusades, with the characters off to a holy war. Another addition is the use of the disputation between the body and the soul, a medieval trope, to fit neatly into the frame-tale's theme of renunciation for sacrifice, and the leaving of one's family to seek a higher path.
This tale was one of many which told the Buddha's story with nobody suspecting this until the 1600s. While a chronicler of Marco Polo's journey caught on to a resemblance, modern scholars in the 19th century, investigating the sources for the misunderstood origins of Shakyamuni, or Prince Siddhartha, finally figured out the elaborate and entangled transmission gone haywire much later. Lopez, as a noted scholar of Buddhist reception in the West (see Prisoners of Shangri-La on Tibet and The Scientific Buddha for attempts to reconcile the historical Buddha with post-Darwinian science, both reviewed by me), is well-suited to convey these crossed messages. Joined by medievalist Peggy McCracken, the two seek to explain the origins of the tales told throughout the Middle Ages, as the Buddha's story was embedded into narratives and biographies which asserted often the superiority of non-Buddhist ideas. See my review of their In Search of the Christian Buddha (also reviewed July 28, 2014) for much more on these other tales, before and after Gui's own story. In the Penguin, if surprisingly short as to notes and editorial material, the tale nonetheless moves along rather smoothly, for a medieval one where digressions and details are welcomed by listeners, and it's good to have it in English at last.